Julie Orser's photography and video works consistently engage with the mechanics of American cinema, with a particular focus on representations of women in film. Tall and slender with black-rimmed glasses and a soothing voice, Orser could have appeared in one of the American film genres she dissects, whether it's psychological melodrama, suspense thriller, film noir, Western, or coming-of-age. Most in her element when she is playing the role of director, however, Orser prefers to be behind the camera capturing others. At times, her high-quality video and photography dances on the line between becoming its own genre of experimental film and commenting on the history of film. Like a good director, she has a vision that the viewer can trust.
Orser grew up in the suburbs north of Chicago. She headed to the West Coast to start her art career, completing her BFA at Pacific Northwest College of Art before coming to Los Angeles to do an MFA at CalArts. She's remained in Los Angeles since then, working as a New Genres Lab Supervisor at U.C.L.A. before landing at her current academic institution, Cal State Fullerton where she currently works. This is her fourth solo exhibition, and her third one in Los Angeles -- the other two were at Steve Turner Contemporary and Paul Kopeikin Gallery. Recent notable group exhibitions abroad include "Super 8," curated by Christopher Grimes Gallery at the Musuem of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2013), and a closer to home "We Can Pretend: Three Artists' Takes on Hollywood Genre Film," curated by Carrie Paterson at Jaus Gallery in Los Angeles.
Though Orser's practice has taken her to spaces across the country and world, her work settles into L.A.'s cinematic backdrop, at times almost blending into it. The West Coast agrees with her sensibility. There was a physical and psychological shift that occurred when she left the flat tundra behind.
"It's hard to explain growing up in Chicago, where you could freeze to death," says Orser. "Your body responds differently to the climate and the landscape in the West."
On the phone, Orser is inquisitive and hushed, almost like a soothing radio journalist that one would like to keep listening to late into the night.
Her visual fascination with the West began with the 2005 four-channel video and sound installation "Occurrence at Lookout Rock" (2005), which Orser shot at Joshua Tree National Park. In these videos, Orser selects archetypal Western characters -- the Lady, Saloon Girl, Cowgirl, and Outlaw -- arranging them in a Hollywood flat-like landscape without a specific narrative. Freed from their narrative, what will these characters do? Orser's work within the film genre contexts only expanded from there, but her interest in film began long before she entered the West Coast.
"I remember when we got our first VHS," says Orser. "It's more about my generation and access to film and the movie store, and that fascination with the movie store -- which is now kind of gone. It's totally different now."
In Orser's current exhibition "Madeleine," haunting images of meditations on the Hitchcock blonde line every wall at Cal State Los Angeles' Luckman Fine Arts Complex. The viewer is entwined in a vortex of heightened cinematic psychological obsession, desire and entropy focused around the iconic Hitchcock blonde. Like sliding a fine-toothed comb through a head of hair one thin strand at a time, Orser delicately extracts the characters from Hitchcock's 1958 psychological melodrama/suspense thriller "Vertigo."
"In 'Vertigo,' the character Madeleine is constructed on screen," says Orser. "In the film, Madeleine is portrayed twice by the character Judy. She is constructed by one male character to fool another. In the second, the Jimmy Stewart character recreates her on screen. This was the first time I could think of where this iconic character was actually created for me [the viewer] on screen -- it was so clear that she was a fabrication and an image, to think about desire and obsession."
Orser goes about examining the onscreen fabrication of desire and obsession by revisiting scenes from the screen version of "Vertigo," and places where it was shot. In examining the Hitchcock blonde and recreating scenes where the semblance of the character, she asks the viewer to step in and experience what it would have been like to Madeleine.
"All of it creates a kind of 'love at first sight' or obsessive moment," says Orser. "With this installation, I was interested in presenting the setting, light, and music without the characters and the cameras -- to see if there was a way to create this atmosphere of desire with just the mechanics, so the viewer becomes the Madeleine character."
This is a throughline that carries across Orser's oeuvre, which frequently probes the female psychological landscape. Her 2007 videos "In This Place (Anna Moore)" and "Double Bind (Anna Moore)" deconstruct the hyperfeminine female characters of psychological melodrama and film noir of the mid-1940s and mid-1950s. By isolating these representations of women in film through specific gestures, mood and moments -- such as a woman crying hysterically, gazing into the bedroom mirror, discovering a document in a detective's office drawer, or just sitting at a kitchen table drinking coffee and contemplating existence -- the audience becomes both mesmerized by the lush visuals, and concerned with the possibility that this woman is no longer serving a narrative "purpose."
In Orser's 2011 video "Bottleneck," stuntwomen Melissa Barker and Meegan Godfrey re-enact a violent glass throwing and breaking scene from the 1939 film "Destiny Rides Again." Emotions ride high in an intensely psychological scene between the two women. There is no resolution. By isolating and re-enacting these interactions, Orser brings viewers into the construction of women in cinema.
This is how Orser's current exhibition operates as well. Six hanging installations of six different blonde women portraying Hitchcock's Madeleine in varying profile shots from front to back, and even focusing just on the spiraling blonde hair, offer a sort of sanctuary effect to the entire exhibition. Like a flipbook laid flat, these crisp photographs offer a film-strip-like quality. A photograph of a single darkened silhouette of two of these women, "Because I Remind You of Her," greets viewers upon arrival to the gallery. In the installation "Ernie's (You Can See Her There)," the viewer steps near to a standing set light, activating it; light shines onto an ornate red-wallpaper as the scene from Ernie's restaurant, where Scottie first sees Madeleine.
There's more to digest in this horror-inducing landscape, too. Orser will work with fellow cinephile and L.A. artist Marco Rios on an ongoing project called Los Angeles Eats Itself, which arranges a series of dinners that curate food aesthetic experiences around macabre historical events in L.A. history. Orser will present a dinner around the famous unsolved murder case of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed "Black Dahlia," in January 2015 around the anniversary of her death.
Julie Orser's "Madeleine" continues through October 25th at the Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery (5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032). The artist will host a gallery walkthrough/artist talk at "Ernie's" on October 16th at 7:30pm.